Hupacasath building homes after lengthy hiatus

Mike Youds, June 26, 2019

Taylor Saywell, right, and co-worker Taylor Heck of Saywell Developments prepare foundations for a pair of residential duplexes, the first housing built by Hupacasath nation in years. (Mike Youds photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

Nuu-chah-nulth nations in general are challenged with housing shortages, but what makes Hupacasath First Nation unique among them is its biggest obstacle: No available land.

As a result of the Indian Act’s certificate of possession program, adopted by Hupacasath First Nation years ago, members purchased properties to an extent where there was practically nothing left for new housing or other forms of land development on the Ahahswinis reserve. Ninety percent of Ahahswinis, an urban reserve on the north side of the Somass River, is owned by community members.

“Hupacasath has had the unique experience of having to buy back land from members for building housing,” said Rick Hewson, CEO and chief financial officer. “That’s why there hasn’t been housing built in Ahahswinis for some time.”

People on the Hupacasath wait list for housing have had to be patient. Some have been on the list so long that their family composition has changed, affecting their housing needs, Hewson noted. There are 47 families on the wait list of a nation with a total population of 332.

“I think it’s been about a dozen years since we’ve had any movement on housing,” said Art Van Volsen, housing co-ordinator for the nation. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Van Volsen is excited to have steered a pair of duplexes on Josephine Street, a stone’s throw off River Road, to the construction stage at long last. The 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom ranchers should be available as rent-to-own homes by early 2020.

The Hupacasath government consulted members to initially gauge interest in whether anyone was willing to sell their land. Often families don’t want to let go of their property, preferring to retain it for future generations.

“I think it’s a challenge where there is a certificate of possession program,” Hewson said. “Many communities are completely owned by band members, but for any government program, they require land to be turned over to the band. It causes a lot of friction.”

While it wasn’t easy, “I think we’ve negotiated a fair and equitable rate,” Hewson added.

Once a purchase was completed, they opted for a duplex design in order to optimize the housing opportunity. A meeting June 26 will help determine which families will be able to move in later this year.

After encountering a lot of red tape with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s New Approach to Housing Support program, Van Volsen found success working with CMHA’s on-reserve non-profit housing program. Even with that, the process wasn’t straightforward.

“There is no manual,” he said. “You’ve got to have somebody doing it.”

That means consistent communications with the funding agency and having someone who can write effective proposals. Applicants have to compete for a limited pool of funds. Projects need to be championed with strong backing from chief and council, he stressed.

“There are nations out there that don’t have proposal writers and they’re going to miss out,” he said.

There are two more serviced lots available within the three-hectare parcel purchased by Hupacasath. Those lots are earmarked for band members interested in financing their own construction.

Beyond that, a long-term opportunity for Hupacasath to develop new housing lies with the nearby Kleekoot reserve west of Sproat Lake. Kleekoot may accommodate an additional 24-36 housing units, though its location some distance from town would present an issue for some members, Hewson said.

Subdivision development would first require a water connection, the subject of a feasibility study nearing completion.

While Hupacasath First Nation’s land constraints are unique within Nuu-chah-nulth territory, their needs are most certainly not.

“I would say, relative to their population, that is pretty normal,” said Doug Neff, NTC director of capital programs, commenting on the community’s lengthy wait list. Other Nu-chah-nulth communities are challenged by remoteness and resources.

“It is a chronic shortage of housing, no question. There is also a chronic lack of infrastructure to support that housing,” Neff said. The challenge lies not only with constructing new housing but with simply maintaining the existing inventory, he added.

Calling the housing situation facing Indigenous people unacceptable, the NDP government last year made B.C. the first province to fund investment in on-reserve housing. More than 1,100 new homes will be built over the next two to four years through the Indigenous Housing Fund.